Stuart Ross and editor Jason Camlot. Photo by Paul Vermeersch.
By Evie Christie
This past month Stuart Ross, small press hero and surrealist extraordinaire, has been short-listed for the Relit Award and featured in the New York Times blog for his Hunkamooga column in the magazine sub-TERRAIN, from which Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer was drawn. I talked to Stuart recently via e-mail about his sixth full-length poetry collection, Dead Cars in Managua (DC Books, 2008), and other stuff!
MONDO: DC Books and the Punchy Writers Series now have a reputation for unusual and brilliant work. They use gorgeous paper and make books that are lovely to look at. Aside from all this stuff, why did you decide to publish this collection with them? Stuart, I know that these poems are linked to the italicized poems in I Cut My Finger (Anvil, 2007). Beyond that, where did these poems originate?
Stuart Ross: OK, you’re on to me, Evie. Let me talk first about those italicized poems in I Cut My Finger. It was the first time I’d published poems like those, poems that didn’t have a clear narrative of any kind. Italicizing them was maybe a cowardly thing to do, a way of putting them at a distance, of maybe saying, “OK, these aren’t the way I normally write. Consumer, beware.”
And yes, a lot of the poems in the third section of Dead Cars In Managua were created the same way; they were written while other poems (primarily long poems by John Ashbery) were being read aloud.
As for the Punchy Writers Series, I’m not sure they have a reputation for anything yet, because there are only two books so far, and mine is the poetry book. I was very fortunate because, once again, a publisher agreed to feature the art of a friend of mine on the cover of my book, in this case my old high-school friend Howard Ross (no relation!). I love that painting by him, and it does have a revolutionary look, so it fits in nicely with the invocation of Managua, Nicaragua. The designer decided to use really nice paper inside so that my photos would reproduce well; I’m so grateful they went to that expense.
I didn’t intend to have a book out this year, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to publish with a Montreal press, but Jason Camlot, who edits Punchy Poetry, approached me shortly after we met about a year ago, and told me about this imprint he was launching through DC, and he said he wanted the first book to be by me. He felt that would make a strong statement.
I’m not immune to flattery, so I didn’t think long about it. I was very excited about being the flagship book for a new imprint, and I wanted to work with Jason, because he’s a great guy and a great poet, and I realized that publishing with a Montreal press might help me build audience in that city. I didn’t have a manuscript at hand, but I had a couple of unfinished projects – Dead Cars in Managua, the photo-and-prose-poem sequence, and Hospitality Suite, a collection of poems about hospitals. I decided to create a book that would really be three chapbooks bound into one cover. I rounded the projects off with poems I had written in recent years at the Poetry Boot Camps that I lead. At first, I thought of this as a collection of side projects, but, as I say in the introduction, I came to realize this was simply my next book. And yeah, it’d be very different from all the books that came before it. Which was exciting, because it’s risky to do something your audience wouldn’t expect, or maybe wouldn’t even want.
Anyway, it was a good gamble because the book looks good, and Jason was a brilliant and challenging editor of my poetry. And while all the editors I’ve worked with have been really committed to my work, I hadn’t had an experience quite like that before. I love that guy.
MONDO: How has your Poetry Boot Camp changed the work you write?
SR: I get my students to jump through all these insane hoops, writing poems often in crazy ways. I don’t necessarily write poems with all these methods myself, but I think everything is worth trying in the adventure of poetry. So gradually I’ve begun to write more and more poems in my own workshops, and now I’ve called my own bluff by publishing cut-ups and cross-outs and upside-down poems and translations naifs and so on. I never call them “exercises” in my Boot Camps, because exercises are something you do to practise; I want these to be thought of as real poems, so I call them “projects” or “strategies.” And I feel like now I’ve put my money where my mouth is. Well, there’s no money, of course, but I’ve put something where my mouth is. Ink, maybe.
MONDO: At the Punchy/Insomniac launch in Toronto, the crowd was vocal and enthusiastic during your reading. Afterwards I heard many people talking about the artwork – the cover as well as the photographs of the cars inside. How did you decide on your cover art, and can you give some of the back story about the cars?
SR: I think the crowd was also vocal because I had been threatened with a defamation suit by a couple of other poets who were there in the audience, and this was a show of support for me. I can’t believe these two had the gall to show up at my launch after they’d sent a lawyer after me to shut me up. And then this other lousy poet was there, too, who had equated me publicly with Holocaust deniers because I was, to quote his mangled miscommand of the English language, “wrapping myself around the flag of freedom of expression.” Well, sorry, chump, but it was an issue of freedom of expression. And given that most of my great uncles and aunts and cousins died in concentration camps, I took offense. And it’s just now occurred to me that this guy shares the same name as the moronic Nazi colonel in Hogan’s Heroes.
But OK, I’m glad you heard people enthusing about the cover and the photos. As I said, the cover was by Howard Ross, with whom I did a plasticine animation Super 8 film in high school called Tale of a Glorp. He’s a very adventurous visual artist and I love much of his stuff and I’m glad to have his art on my cover, just as I’m glad to have the work of Charles George, Lisa Kiss, John Ens, Dana Samuel, Mike Richardson, Karen Azoulay, Pam Stewart, and Gary Clement on various of my other covers. All really talented friends of mine.
The photos I took during trips to Nicaragua in 1989, 1990, and 1996. I’m not sure if they’re still there, but there were just all these cars lying in the streets and the fields and the playgrounds of Managua. There’d be this stripped-down car parked on a residential street and it would have a tree growing up through it, or it’d be shrouded in shrubbery. I started photographing them, just crappy photographs because I’m not much of a photographer. But I knew since 1990 I would one day do something called Dead Cars in Managua. I pulled a version of it together for a YYZ Gallery publication a few years ago, then reworked it for the book, made a version I’m pleased with.
MONDO: What are you working on now? Are you going to move back to fiction or non-fiction? Will there be a follow-up to Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (more from the sub-TERRAIN columns)?
SR: The non-fiction is ongoing, what with my sub-TERRAIN column, Hunkamooga, which recently got some surprise praise on the New York Times blog. I’m collecting all those columns in a file, along with a few other personal essays and other non-fiction I’ve written, and I sure hope there’ll be a More Confessions someday. I think Anvil Press, my Vancouver publisher who’s also responsible for sub-TERRAIN, will be game.
The poetry is also ongoing, and the work I do in my Boot Camps has become central to my practice. But my next book, Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, which is coming out in 2009 with Melanie Little’s imprint, Freehand Books, out of Calgary, is a collection of short stories, my first in a dozen years. I really have to get to work on those: there’s a lot of rewriting and reshaping to do, and I want to round that book off with a few new stories that I haven’t even conceived of yet and won’t until I start writing their first sentences. I’m excited about working with Melanie: she a fantastic writer and a good friend and I just know she’s going to be a kick-ass editor.
There are also a couple of short novels burbling around: one that needs some surgery and another that needs to be written through to the end. I’m excited about those, too. They’re sort of about my parents. But they are also surreal and strange, and they have been very difficult to write. Again, there’s risk there for me, and that makes the experience valuable.
Stuart Ross is the poetry editor at Mansfield Press and the fiction and poetry editor at This Magazine, and has published lots of books, most recently Dead Cars in Managua (DC Books Punchy Writers Series, 2008), I Cut My Finger (Anvil Press, 2007), and the non-fiction collection of Hunkamooga columns, Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Anvil Press, 2005). He publishes Peter O’Toole, the only journal of one-line poems we know of. His popular Poetry Boot Camps are the place to be; contact Stuart for information on the next Boot Camp (August 17, 2008) at email@example.com.